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The EU’s Seven-Year Budget Itch

On February 23, EU members began negotiations on the bloc's multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027. But, with all countries focusing on net balances – how much they receive minus how much they pay – will the composition of spending bear any relation to the EU’s stated priorities?

PARIS – It’s theater season in the European Union. The play, called budget negotiations, is performed every seven years. It pits the EU’s spenders against its savers, donors against receivers, and reformers against conservatives. After the actors have exhausted themselves with bluffs, bullying, blackmail, and betrayal, everybody agrees on minimal changes. Each government claims victory and EU public spending is set in stone until the next performance.

Drama aside, however, watching the negotiation of the multiannual financial framework, as it is called, is a deeply depressing experience. All countries view it from the perspective of net balances – how much they receive, less how much they pay – without regard for the intrinsic value of spending. And, because wasting money at home is regarded as better than usefully spending it elsewhere, the composition of expenditures bears no relation to the EU’s stated priorities. In 2003, the Sapir report on Europe’s economic system called the EU budget a historical relic. Things haven’t improved much since then.

Theater season opened on February 23, when EU leaders held their first talks on the 2021-2027 framework. Optimists hope that it will end before the European Parliament election in June 2019. Realists expect it to last until the actors run out of time – that is, the end of 2020.

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